My family has come to know that I love to read books, especially if they are related to planning. So this past Christmas, my sister-in-law gave me the Art of Building Cities by Camillo Sitte. I am surprised I have yet to come across this book, especially when I was conducting research for my public square paper last summer. This book was written and published in 1896, but the teachings within are still relevant today. Some however will be very difficult to implement given the rigid grid we chose to lay our cities out with.
Towards the end of the book Sitte talks in great length about the way engineers and lawyers shaped the way our cities look and feel. The engineers used their equipment in the most efficient manner possible, laying out straight lines and rectangular lots. They bulldozed through wetlands, bluffs, and other topological features to keep the grid as straight as possible. This not only has created boring suburban developments, but has wreaked havoc on our natural environment. The result is less green space and more opportunity for natural disasters like wildfire to spread.
It also means we interact with each other less. In the early 1900's the square land development pattern began as a way to pack in as many buildings as possible in the urban cores. We expanded that concept with larger lots in the 1950's to make room for large single family homes and pared it with new zoning codes that kept residential uses far from commercial and retail uses, requiring the use of cars.
The Pausanias wrote "A city without public edifices and squares is not worthy of its name." Applied today, almost no city in America is worthy of its name. We have squares and public buildings, but we lack public squares that anyone wants to spend more than a few minutes eating their lunch. As Sitte stated "Surging throngs no longer circulate on market days before our City Halls. In brief, activity is lacking precisely in those places where, in ancient times, it was most intense--near public structures. Thus, to a great extent, we have lost that which contributed to the splendor of public squares."
The public square was an integral part of life, where festivals took place, where people went for air and light, to break the monotony of houses, to watch the theater of everyday life, to buy goods at the market place and most important for government. I suspect there was a much higher participation rate in government activities back in ancient times than there is today. If only we could recreate the environment of the plaza in our cities to make it an integral part of daily life for most citizens we could better connect them with their government.
What Sitte describes as a good model of the public square was achieved first in the Middle Ages, when art was a key component of city building. They laid out their building sites according to views and space, how the pedestrian would feel within the space. This allowed for more organic layouts, with buildings tucked closely together, slightly off axis, to create pockets of land for the piazzas or plazas. Looking at a birds eye view, it appears haphazard, but instead of catering towards the vehicle, it caters towards the pedestrian, the user of the public square.
We may think there is no way to avoid laying out spaces in a grid fashion with streets running at right angles in today's world, but we have tools that can overcome this. We just tend to use these tools in the same way and never achieve a unique result. Planned Unit Developments or Cluster Developments still get treated like a normal subdivision with straight lines and leftover squares for public space. Why not instead use these tools to redesign a large plot of land to cluster buildings together in a way that provides a unique pedestrian experience intended to give citizens the public life they have been missing? I would love to see a developer think outside the code and come up with an exciting new plan that learns from the old cities of Europe and breaks the rigid grid we laid out hundreds of years ago. Then maybe we could say we made a real effort at bringing society together and planning for the citizen not the car.